Punjab jails have been in news for all the wrong reasons time and again, with criminals running extortion rackets from inside, having easy access to drugs and mobile phones and making audacious jailbreak attempts. The Friday’s jailbreak bid by rioting inmates in Gurdaspur has put the focus back on chaos in the state’s jails. In an interview to HT, additional director general of police, jails, Rohit Choudhary, who joined the office four months ago, talks about the nub of the problem and his strategy to improve things.
What is wrong with jails in Punjab?
It is primarily because of neglect of prison administration for the past five to 10 years, which has resulted in no recruitment. Even two attempts made for holding recruitments were so mismanaged that the high court had to cancel them. Today, we are carrying out the recruitment process that was to happen years ago, with the result that we have only 50% of the sanctioned staff strength in jails. Also, lack of latest equipment such as jammers, CCTV cameras, metal detectors and X-ray machines ails the system. You will be surprised that till recently, there were no wireless sets or intercoms working in some jails. These are basic things that should be available.
The Gurdaspur jailbreak bid exposed chinks in prison security. What is being done to plug these?
We are recruiting more people. After the Nabha jailbreak, special high security zones have been created in nine prisons to house 300-odd gangsters and hardcore criminals. This was implemented on February 3. We are in the process of setting up these special zones with 4G jammers and video cameras. The process will be over within the next 15-20 days. A letter has been sent to police authorities to identify hardcore criminals from among those lodged in jails. Also, the department has requisitioned extra force in the form of paramilitary for which the request has to go to the Central government. Also, a request has been made for extra police for high security zones for which the chief minister has called a meeting this week. With a new government in place, we expect positive results.
Poor coordination and lack of intelligence are often blamed for such situations. What are you doing on this front?
The issue of arrested organised criminals and gangsters is not isolated to prisons. Close cooperation with police is required. We seek support from police and special task force regarding movement of prisoners lodged in jails. Over 400 mobile phones have been recovered from different prisons in the past three months. These have been sent to police for detailed analysis and feedback on their activities. As it happens with any two departments, there would always be some issues due to their different priorities and quantum of work. We have proposed a separate internal intelligence wing focusing on prisons and analysis of information recovered from phones.
What about overcrowding in jails? Is it a problem like in several other states?
No, that’s not the case. In Punjab, we are well-placed. We have 23,000 inmates in jails as against capacity of 22,500. A new jail is being set up at Goindwal Sahib. It’s not an issue, but understaffing remains a very serious problem that we trying to tackle on priority.
There are allegations that political interference and patronage have led to this deterioration in functioning of prisons. Your take?
I took over charge after the Nabha jailbreak that was the nadir of mismanagement or whatever you might call it. I had a clear mandate to improve things, and political interference was never a consideration. But there were definitely some undercurrents that criminals had some kind of privileged treatment, may be encouragement from some quarters. We have initiated many steps to make sure that incidents like the one in Gurdaspur do not recur.
Drugs and mobile phones cannot enter jails without the connivance of prison staff. How do you plan to curb corruption?
I have been very accommodating in terms of genuine requirements. We have an open policy where anyone can apply for any position here. If someone wants to become a superintendent or go to any station, they can just apply. We sit down, see their past record and decide. I have transferred about 350 people based on simple requests for the first time. Welfare measures such as ₹10,000 for daughter’s marriage and scholarships to their wards have been taken up. On the other hand, if anyone is found indulging in any illegal activity, we are very strict. It must be for the first time that cases have been registered against two superintendents, with one superintendent being dismissed and seven to eight people being suspended on charges of collusion or corruption.
Is there any prison on which you want to model the Punjab jails?
We are picking up a few things from Tihar Jail (Delhi). Things like high security zone, skill development centres in jails in collaboration with technical education department and involvement of non-government organisations for relieving stress through yoga and meditation besides education are being taken up. Also, I have asked the Gurdaspur deputy commissioner to provide computers to start a computer centre. The barrack that was destroyed in the recent incident may be converted into a skill development centre and used for yoga, meditation and other recreational purposes. It cannot be used as a barrack now.